The Mohawk warrior Thayendanegea, better known to history by his English name Joseph Brant, was a badass. The Revolutionary War leader of Mohawk tribesmen and Loyalist Rangers was one of the most tactically proficient raiders in the history of American irregular warfare.
Brant was a protégé of Sir William Johnson, the remarkable Irish-born Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern District of the British Colonies during and after the French & Indian War. Thayendanegea’s sister, known as Molly Brant, was Johnson’s consort and a woman of tremendous influence in the borderlands culture of the New York frontier. Her brother Joseph was highly-educated and spoke more refined English than most of the white settlers of the Mohawk Valley. He was a devout Anglican Christian and a capable farmer and businessman, who worked considerable acreage, ate off fine china and silver plate and owned African slaves. He was also a fine hunter and a natural leader. Brant was a true Man of the Middle Ground, the product of an evolving hybrid borderlands culture not European or native, but a synthesis of both.
When the Revolutionary War came, the Iroquois League, of which the Mohawks were the easternmost nation, sought to remain neutral.
Not Thayendanegea. His every tie — familial, economic, diplomatic — was to the Crown. He was a Loyalist to the bone, commissioned a Captain in the British Army, and would lead a small but dedicated cadre of Mohawk warriors, augmented by a large number of Loyalist militiamen and Rangers, in a brutal guerilla war on the New York Frontier in the 1770s.
Such was his success in spreading terror and death across the New York Frontier that the name Joseph Brant was attached to every assault on a lonely farmhouse, every slaughter of an American patrol. Americans, during the war and long after, deemed Joseph Brant a monster.
Brant’s vision was broader than the forests, fields and lakes of his New York homeland. Like several other remarkable native war leaders of the period, he envisioned the creation a pan-Indian confederacy, allied to Great Britain, that would carve out a viable nation that could function on equal footing with the growing might of the Euro-American culture and polity that increasingly dominated northeastern North America. And, being an alpha male badass of no small ego, he saw himself as the leader of such a confederacy of nations.
With that mission in mind, Brant — who had been detached by the British to operate out of Detroit that year — journeyed south to the Ohio River in 1781. The Ohio River Valley was another savage theater of war, where the Wyandot, the Mingo, the Shawnee, and the Delaware nations fought to resist incursions from western Pennsylvania into the Ohio country and sought to drive new settlers out of the valued hunting lands of Kentucky.
Brant was an interloper in that theater of war, but he would soon make his presence felt.
In the early summer of 1781, another badass was forming an army to attack the British headquarters for the western frontier theater at Detroit. From Detroit came the war matériel for countless Indian raids on western Pennsylvania, western Virginia and the Kentucky settlements, and it was to Detroit that the native raiders brought their loot, their captives and scalps, for which the British paid a bounty.
Capture Detroit, and you’ve shut off the raids and perhaps won the war — or so went the thinking of General George Rogers Clark. Clark was not yet 30, a dynamic, driven frontiersman, scion of Virginia gentry, who had, in 1778, pulled off one of the epic military operations in American history, capturing three British posts in the Illinois country with a mere handful of men. He’d also captured British General Henry Hamilton, known and reviled by Americans as The Hair-Buyer.
But Detroit was the prize he truly lusted after, and that summer he was determined to conquer it.
He had sold his plan to raise an army of 2,000 men to Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson and returned to Fort Pitt at the Forks of the Ohio River with the funds and authority to create a major frontier expeditionary force.
Things were not going well.
Recruiting prospects were dismal. The best quality Virginia militiamen were off east to fight under General George Washington; men of the western counties weren’t inclined to leave their homes and farmsteads undefended for six months to a year to traipse off into the wilderness in hopes of capturing distant Detroit. The Continental Army commander at Fort Pitt, General Daniel Brodhead, refused to detach regular army troops to Clark, because he was planning his own campaign against the Delaware.
Clark was reduced to taking on frontier riffraff, and not enough of them. Frustrated, he started impressing men into service, which only led to desertion. Finally, he set off down the Ohio River to a staging are at Fort Nelson (Louisville, Kentucky) with just 400 men, hoping to recruit more in Kentucky. Pennsylvania Militia Colonel Archibald Lochry agreed to follow on with 100 men he had managed to drum up.
Lochry floated down the Ohio River — and into destruction.
Part II — an ambush on the Ohio River.